Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)

The principle of “elevated” horror has become the bane of the existence of many fans of the genre, with the belief that this movement towards more trendy, auteur-driven horror is somehow indicative of the genre being taken seriously, rather than it just being the natural progression that tends to happen over time, where more prominent artists get exposure based on experimenting with the format and structure of a particular style of filmmaking. If anything, the frequent desire to push boundaries and create the next horror phenomenon has resulted in many films failing dismally, falling apart before they even had a chance to plead their case. The key difference between the films that succeed and those that fail is quite simply based around how effective it is as weaving together a particular narrative without becoming too invested in the quest to be different. The best modern horrors are those that are intelligent enough to show restraint, rather than being purely off-the-wall for the sake of bewildering viewers and forcing us to have a memorable experience. One of the more successful attempts to do this recently comes in the form of Bodies Bodies Bodies, in which director Halina Reijn (in her English-language debut) constructs a caustic and bitterly funny satire that draws on classic horror conventions, filtering it through a distinctly modern perspective, questioning contemporary issues around gender identity, social media and the role of individuality in a society driven by an almost homogenous sense of thinking. It’s not an overly serious film, but it has very deep underpinnings that add nuance to what is essentially nothing more than a thrilling slasher horror film with many moments of unhinged comedy that keep us entertained, while still provoking a decent amount of thought, which is of vital importance when dealing with a genre that has seemingly been subjected to every kind of analysis, which is quite an achievement for this kind of film.

Horror is perhaps the genre that has been subjected to the most deconstruction – every aspect of the genre has been analysed with razor-sharp precision, and either reconfigured or entirely dismantled and rebuilt to have a different impact. This may sound overly analytical, but it has resulted in very clear insights into what makes horror films so successful, since condensing them down into a few notable qualities allows us to understand the specific configurations that differentiate the truly terrifying or effective ones from those that are just poorly constructed. The trope of the “final girl” has existed for quite a while – the term came into prominence during the peak of the slasher era, where films like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street established the trope of having someone survive to tell the tale of a particularly horrifying ordeal. It’s not a sacred concept, since many films have intentionally subverted it and creatively manipulated the idea, but it has mostly been a solid foundation for a lot of horror over the past half-century. It’s a formula that works, since it offers us a character with whom we can connect, and root for their escape, which places us in the position of actively being actively involved in the story, rather than just watching from a distance. Bodies Bodies Bodies carefully and cleverly uses the concept to its benefit – it’s a slasher film in the way that it approaches its story and has a very simple narrative, with the concept of a group of young people trapped in a house while being presumably stalked by a mysterious killer being a solid foundation from which Reijn can build a strong horror film. It never seems to have too much interest in extending too far beyond its reach, and the decision to maintain a very simple and straightforward narrative is one of the key components behind the success of Bodies Bodies Bodies, which has a good sense of direction, enough to make it more than just the sum of its parts, a genuine concern for modern horror, since audiences are always expecting something deeper and more profound.

However, Bodies Bodies Bodies is also not a film that necessarily wants to play by the rules, despite having a clear reverence for them, based on the director’s clear indication that she was drawing influence from many sources, extending across multiple genres, all of which are intricately woven into the narrative. It’s the perfect balance of psychological horror and dark comedy, and Reijn doesn’t miss any opportunity to insert some sardonic commentary into the narrative – and most importantly, it never feels even vaguely forced. Far too many modern directors are intent on deriding the younger generation and their dependency on identity politics and social media – and while Reijn doesn’t ever allow her characters to get away with such self-centred approaches to life, she doesn’t ridicule them in a way that feels like she is attacking the entire generation, but rather those that exist on the margins of extremity. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but they do have moments of genuine nastiness, which is quite a welcome change of pace, especially since there are many moments in which the film needs us to feel some sort of disdain for the characters, since they are made out to be very specific archetypes. Reijn understands that what she is doing is potentially very risky, but her approach remains the same, with her intention in telling this story, as well as her attention to detail, making for quite a unique storyline. The use of common slasher tropes is creative, and the film is genuinely never predictable – we can create theories as to where it is going, but it rarely (if ever) feels like it is venturing too far beyond its capacity, stopping at crucial moments and leaving a lot to be discovered by the audience, who will undoubtedly be fully engaged with how this story progresses, leading to a hilarious but undeniably bleak conclusion.

Credit must be given to Reijn for assembling a very good cast to bring her vision to life. By design, the story called for a specific kind of actor, where the story is told through the perspective of a group of people who are young enough to lean into the film’s underlying message of the folly of youth and the mindless stupidity of the modern generation, but also world-weary enough to not just be delusional and lack any sense of complexity. It’s not the first time a film has been made to show the myopic nature of the younger generation, but it is one of the more compassionate ones, since it isn’t ever punching downwards – every one of these characters is well-formed, and Reijn actively avoids constructing them as just foolish young adults that lack depth. They may have their moments of idiocy, but they’re authentic in a very meaningful way. Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalova are at the heart of the film, finding the perfect balance between humour and drama (which makes sense – they’re by far the most esteemed of the cast, despite still being quite young in comparison to their peers in the industry), while Rachel Sennott has many moments of pure hilarity as the comedic relief. Myha’la Herrold and Chase Sui Wonders are quite new (having done some work, but nothing particularly high profile yet) and thus slightly unfamiliar to many of us, but they’re both terrific and bring a lot of complexity to otherwise stock characters. The cast is rounded out by Pete Davidson and Lee Pace, who play the initial victims who end up inadvertently inciting the panic that consumes the other characters and ends up being the core of the narrative. The most important aspect of Bodies Bodies Bodies is not only that these actors are giving strong performances on their own, but their chemistry with each other is fantastic, with so much of the film depending on the solid interactions between the characters, which allows us to be even more invested in following their horrifying journey and discovering the root of the crisis in which they find themselves, becoming a true ensemble effort in every way.

It’s a daring choice to make a slasher film set within the Gen-Z community, but it was one that works spectacularly well when we consider the extent to which the director and the cast collaborate to create something both blisteringly funny and deeply unsettling. This is the rare case of a horror film that is not afraid to be funny and a comedy that is willing to be extraordinarily bleak – it makes the journey all the more thrilling, and creates a film that is perpetually pushing boundaries in a way that never feels forced, but instead has a very distinct worldview, which is filtered through a very funny and deeply insightful analysis of contemporary issues, which are combined with slasher tropes to create a layered and captivating psychological thriller that draws on many sources of influence in the process of becoming a layered and unexpectedly complex story. It’s interesting that the director cited many films as influences, but where very few were actually explicitly horror films – films by John Cassavetes, Michael Haneke and Ingmar Bergman seem like peculiar choices for a Gen-Z slasher film, but how Reijn effectively and concisely uses them as referential touchpoints is quite surprising, and leads to a very intriguing sense of mystery, one that extends far beyond a one-dimensional story of a group of people slowly being murdered, and instead becomes surprisingly quite thrilling in a way that is never hackneyed, and instead proves that the best approach to horror is to primarily choose a simple premise, and not depend solely on other entries into the genre as influences, since there are some sources that, when blended together, can create quite a unique and engrossing project, which is especially important in a genre that has become overly saturated with attempts to pioneer a new style, when in reality the best works are those that never feel compelled to prove themselves, instead knowing that the key to good horror is a blend of simplicity and audacity, both of which Bodies Bodies Bodies has in a total abundance.


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